Recently, a fellow indie author made a request of me, to which I overreacted.
“I’m 68 years old. You are 30-31. If, for some reason, I should never get to write/finish my novel, would you be willing to consider finishing it as a novel based on my story? I would consider it a great honor.”
I stared at the screen, scared, angry and annoyed. I typed up a scathing response, but hesitated to send it. How dare you? I barely know you and you’re anointing me as your successor, bypassing your legitimate heirs to make me responsible not just for honoring your legacy, but finishing it for you? I left the email draft alone to think about it. A few days later, I gave a gentle response, somewhere between “no” and “we’ll see.” To which my colleague backpedaled, confused by the artificial tension I’d created.
Why did I react so violently? It took me a bit to figure it out.
June 20, 2009
“…And I can only hope you find peace.”
I finished and stepped down from the podium, wiping away a tear. No applause followed. I had just given the eulogy for my twenty-two year old high school friend, Richard Yee. I met Richie in middle school, when my family moved from Texas to the Atlanta suburbs. I fell in with his group but it was years before the two of us started writing. Once we started, we couldn’t stop. I wrote my stories, he wrote his. We distributed them, soliciting unofficial ratings and reviews from our circle, often trying to one-up each other by writing competing versions of the same plot.
We went to different colleges, pursuing technical degrees. Our emails were always alight with new manuscripts, heated exchanges over commas, repetitive words, nuances of usage, and the relative strength or weakness of a new story. After college, we started looking at the nascent worlds of blogging, ezines, and self-publishing. In 2009 we tried to get a periodical going, but after some head-butting it was clear that he would have his blog and I would have mine. The last time I saw him alive was his birthday, April 28th, 2009. In mid-June, I got the call. Richie was found in his apartment alone, having died of an alcohol overdose, drinking alone, celebrating or mourning what, I’ll never know.
I have print and digital copies of everything Richie ever wrote. When we were both alive, writing was always a passion, a hobby, a fruitful exchange of ideas. We were two boys running around a green lawn in the dusky twilight, catching fireflies. Who had more, whose were brighter, and how to improve our game is what occupied us all those years. If I read dead authors as often as live ones, why should he be any different? John Steinbeck is no more dead or alive to me than he is to other avid readers. He just is. He is Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, Of Mice and Men. He’s the sum total of all the words he wrote when he was alive, in a very particular order. To him, to his family, that’s his legacy. But to me, that’s his body, his identity. Steinbeck was never a person to me, a man or a woman or a life, only a crisp rectangular stack of books like a message left in a bottle.
After Richie died, I didn’t stop writing, but I slowed. Between 2009 and 2015 I wrote only twelve stories (not counting the throwaways, of course). I walked the lawn, alone, still feebly catching fireflies, but his jar sat on the porch now, a lid put on it. If you, dear reader, have ever grieved, I want you to know I don’t pretend to be your equal for losing my friend. But when I talk about death, I’m not talking about capital-D Death, the essay topic. I don’t fetishize books or the creative writing process. It’s just that at a young and formative age the world taught me a vivid lesson about the intimate connection between death and the written word. When I die (hopefully decades from now), my family will know me as the man, but my broader legacy will be my body of work. My best case scenario will be a fifteen-year-old boy writing a book report on Gingerbread, and my birth and death years will just be numbers, as arbitrary as Steinbeck’s 1902 and 1968.
May 21, 2016
So no, I was not enthused by the prospect of finishing an old man’s novel for him. I thought it was selfish cheat. Why should I lease out the years of my life to accomplish something he had 68 years to accomplish himself? Richie only had 22 years to live, and he lived them. He created his legacy. He may not have finished it, but what’s there will have to do. The human body is an interesting thing. I’ve been carrying this as a part of me for seven years, and it manifested as an indignant, passive-aggressive reticence. For the record, I managed to diagnose this complex and bring the issue back down to the hard earth of civility. Still, the experience scraped away that scar tissue and reinforced that lesson in my value system.
Interviewers often ask us why we write, or when we started writing. It’s a more complicated answer than can possibly fit in a single blog post, because for us writers, writing is our life, it’s how we define ourselves. Regardless of our marriage, our family, our occupation or hobbies or residence, writing is the deepest light within us. It’s the part of us we know will live on past our physical death because we read the lights of others every day. Whether it be Roald Dahl or John Steinbeck or Ayn Rand or Harper Lee or Edgar Allan Poe, we read dead authors and they make us feel alive. Writing, among other things, is a bid for immortality. Because eventually night will come and we want something left on our nightstand to remind us that the darkness isn’t all dark.